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Disappearing dates

A trend that seems to be accelerating in the last few years is the disappearance of dates from the internet. So far I haven’t seen it on news sites, but I see it more often on private corporate communication, blogs, and other lightly trafficked publications. I’ve heard rumors of some corporate sites removing the date after a set period of time, or even running periodic scripts to change the date to the present.

Some news websites, like The Guardian, display the date in a surprisingly inconspicuous position: on a sidebar, in small grey text, beneath the journalist byline. The newest variants of social media, like TikTok, remove the the date entirely from main screens. Older apps like Facebook may not go that far, but they do prefer to count time in terms of distance from the present (“9 seconds ago”).

The internet was never really designed to be an archive. Even more, I doubt its designers could have conceived that the modern web, in all its various media streams, would become the place where large numbers of people “spend” the waking day, and that what people paid the most attention to online would effectively be live action.

If the date continues to disappear from the most populous places on the web, maybe it will be because the only date that matters on the internet is now. There is so much written online about the news today today, not because there is so much happening, but because when the standard is “right now,” it is never too soon to start catching up. Then even the news sites could dispense with the date.

Tags time web_design disappearance archive

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Gerald Murnane's moment

In American media, a lot has been written in the last year about the Australian novelist Gerald Murnane. He just published what he claims is his final book, Last Letter to a Reader, which has set off many new attempts to introduce and assess his work.

I wanted to see what he was about, so I found a copy of his A Million Windows (2014).

Some underrecognized writers attract the interest of writers, and others the critics. I haven’t seen as much about what, say, novelists think about Murnane, but he has definitely attracted the interest of critics. Here is Merve Emre’s description of him in The New Yorker:

The act of contemplation is rendered in a compact and highly finished style that distinguishes Murnane both from his predecessor Proust and from his contemporaries W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Jon Fosse, and Rachel Cusk. Murnane has described himself as a technical writer, and his outspoken and fastidious devotion to grammar steers a great deal of the thinking his narrators perform. This thinking is usually about the nature or the essence of fiction’s relation to life, and it often begins with verbs of supposition. “I, who dislike the word imagine, would prefer to use such an expression as speculate about,” reports the narrator of “A Million Windows.” “Speculate,” “suppose,” “presume,” and “seem”—as in “I seem to recall”—all shift narrative into the subjunctive mood, in which ambitions, conjectures, and longings reign.

The mood is enhanced by the sudden appearance of the perfect continuous conditional tense, which considers not what was, or what had been, but what would have been, or might have been, in certain secluded corners of the narrator’s mind. And, in these corners, one also finds a series of smaller, but no less essential, repetitions that hint at how far fiction may range from fact: the avoidance of proper names when referring to historical figures or locations, or the application of adjectives like “certain” or “so-called,” or adverbs like “probably” or “surely.” The effect is a paradoxical sense of both particularity and indeterminacy, exposure and concealment.

This passage gives an overview of his style, and a good sense of the high regard he receives in most reviews. But there’s a more plain effect it had on me that I didn’t see noted. What I read was unbelievably tedious and repetitive, like the intake document for a clinical asessment of an obsessive disorder. Take this near the beginning of A Million Windows:

If this paragraph were part of an autobiography or of a conventional work of fiction, then I might well report at this point that I saw at least once, and far across the extensive plains mentioned, a sight that I surmised was a reflection of the light from the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys. I might even go on to report that my reading, twenty years later, a certain autobiographical passage in which distant windows are likened to spots of golden oil was in some way connected with my reporting, in the next-to-last paragraph of my first published work of fiction, that the chief character of that work, while travelling with his parents across the extensive plains mentioned, is enabled to see in mind certain details that he has previously been unable so to see. This present work being neither autobiography nor fiction of the same order as the work that I began to write, in the present tense, in the mid-1960s, I need report here only the detail first mentioned in the seventh paragraph of this present work. I need report here only that the window first mentioned in the first paragraph of this present work of fiction might have seemed, at the moment when it was first mentioned, as a distant window might have seemed on an extensive plain to a narrator of an autobiography or to a chief character of a work of fiction – might have seemed like a spot of golden oil, even though I myself have never seen any window with such an appearance.

Context does little to lend more sense to this, because the surrounding text is more variation on the same, a very literal recycling. What comes up over and over are the curiously specific references (“the detail first mentioned in seventh paragraph of this present work…”), flat images (“the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys”), and opaque metaphors (“like a spot of golden oil”). I don’t think I have ever encountered a piece of writing that was so loaded up with intratextual links, but which offered so little satisfaction to the reader who follows the chain of association. Murnane’s writing is like a series of stray paths into a lightly mapped wood, trails which disappear into brush after a minute or two, sending you back to the previous junction, only to branch out again.

I do not see most readers lasting more than five minutes of this. And so my second reaction to Murnane is a sense of appreciation that such a difficult, sometimes unreadable writer could survive over a career. These remarks are only an attempt to register an impression of the text. I’m in that small group of readers who grows more intrigued with difficult writing–perhaps gives texts that are difficult too much credit. But I wonder what would happen today to an artist like Murnane, a writer who starts out with an insistence on being so strange and uncooperative.

Tags literature reading

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Working while blocked

Continuing from “The condition of being blocked”

A creative block does not have to end a work before it begins, but it can mean that something is wrong. The most disappointing response to a block is to take it literally, to believe that there is really nothing there worth pursuing. Where would this “there” be? The more reasonable response is to understand the block as a signal, a pause imposed from elsewhere for undetermined reasons–a signal which has to be taken seriously, but interpreted. Something about the specific makeup of this work, at this time, under these conditions–something about it is not right, and so it can’t continue.

If one interprets the block provisionally, as a sign to reassess and work in a new way, then it is possible to work while blocked. The decision to change one’s working pattern, however slight, is already a temporary release from the block. The act of assessing the new situation is itself a novel, creative act.

One of the most extraordinary recent examples I have seen of what can come from working while blocked, to working with a block rather than against it, is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series. An article in the New Republic describes the origin of the six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical books. It began with a writer’s block that intensified when he became a parent:

Between child-rearing duties, Knausgård was trying to reckon with his relationship with his father in a new novel, but it was falling flat on the page. He saw an evasiveness in his work that gnawed at him. He didn’t believe in it. Maybe he didn’t believe in fiction at all. “He was so desperate and full of pain,” [Knausgård’s friend Geir Angell Øygarden] says.

In early 2008, Knausgård decided to try something different. He would cast aside carefully crafted phrases and narrative arcs and just write plainly about his life. No one will be interested, he thought—and his British publisher at the time was not—but it was something to do to break the dam. He recalls, “I wanted to just say it, you know. As it is.”

On the mindset that kept him writing:

As he began what would become My Struggle, Knausgård wrote in a combination of naïveté and willful denial about how the people close to him might respond. “I was kind of autistic,” he has said. “I didn’t think of the consequences.” He never imagined that all of Scandinavia would be talking about what he was typing. But as he wrote the passage about his grandmother, describing her grease-stained dress and ruined mind, he felt the risk: “ ‘Can I write this?’ I thought. There I knew.”

And the pace that kept him ahead of the block:

Knausgård had completed only two volumes of My Struggle when Book One appeared. The plan was to somehow bring out all six within a year. “It was really crazy!” [Knausgård’s editor Geir Gulliksen] recalls. But Knausgård wanted to be “under the knife of the deadline,” and Gulliksen agreed it was good for him, as an author who was “nearly always living very near some kind of a writer’s block.”

The routine:

Knausgård holed himself up and tried to avoid all newspapers, television, and radio. He instructed his friends not to tell him about any of the coverage, even the ecstatic reviews. He woke up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. and wrote till 7:00 a.m., when he took the kids to school if it was his turn, then returned to his desk until it was time to pick them up at 4:00 p.m. In that span, he could produce 20 pages. At one point, he stayed up for 24 hours and wrote 50 pages about his early days with Linda, trying to capture the rush of feeling. He wrote the fifth volume, 550 pages long, in eight weeks. Speed was a way of keeping himself free. He needed to not think about what he was doing.

What started out as an exercise became the strangest of popular phenomenona (as literature, what even was this?), not just in Scandinavia but worldwide. A few thousands pages of the most unremarkable, unheroic, almost diary-like narrative, written under a manic artificial deadline, were in a very real sense a trick, a temporary measure, an endlessly extended morning ritual to get one’s head right–all to help the author escape his block so that he could do something else.

Sources

Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle (Min kamp), 2009-2011. English

Tags creativity working block

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Deuterocohnia brevifolia

Dwarf bromeliad

Common name: Dwarf Bromeliad

Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago

Tags surfaces

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David Ludlum on atmospheric pollution

From David Ludlum’s Vermont Weather Book (1985)

The atmosphere is still undergoing change. Alternate warm and cool periods lasting several centuries, as well as long spells of wetness and dryness, have resulted in stress to humans and their agricultural activities. During the past century, the petrochemical age, we have altered the constituents of the very air we breathe, and only in the past three decades have we come to realize the damage we have done. Now we are trying to restore the atmosphere to its former purity. We should not have left to unregulated industrial freedom the composition of our most valuable possession. (4)

This version of environmentalism is almost 40 years old. In some respects, the sentiment sounds dated. Ludlum writes in the wake of the U.S. “Clean Air” acts of the 1960s and 1970s, which were concerned with specific sources of pollution like coal plants or combustion engines. From the current era’s perspective, the notion that we need to clean up the air sounds quite optimistic and doable. Today air is still a problem, but it’s a symptom. Mainstream attention has moved to the potential collapse of the entire planetary atmosphere that makes Earth conducive to life. “Dirty” is defined differently: not particular sites of pollution like factories, but a circulating background of particles, atmospheric CO₂. Global CO₂ is far harder to address, because it is a dispersed marker of the entire planet’s polluting activities. The shift in the understanding of atmospheric pollution is a great example of how systems-level thinking can define a problem more completely, at the same time as it makes it more daunting to address.

Sources

David Ludlum, The Vermont Weather Book (Vermont Historical Society, 1985).

Tags climate weather

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The condition of being blocked

I would love to read an account of creative blocks, of “being blocked” when you want to do something original, or engage in some sort of unstructured free inquiry. How have cultures and individuals understood that, what did they did do about it, why did it matter to them? “Writer’s block” is the most recognizable term in this area, although I wonder if it may be on the way to obscurity. I’ve never heard of anyone speak of writer’s block with respect to the ephemeral text-based communication that makes up the bulk of writing today.

Then again, writer’s block (or any other condition of being blocked) never pointed to a stoppage of ordinary communication. No one, for example, gets blocked when talking to a friend, or ordering dinner at a restaurant. This is because an essential part of being blocked is failing to make the leap from spontaneous and unremarkable speaking to an original expression. When a person is un-blocked, he or she still communicates when the cues from the environment and social world fall to a minimum.

But if someone simply can’t, for whatever reason, continue to speak from the other side of that transition, if he comes back with nothing to show for it, or if the attempt is so painful, interrupted, and shaming that it creates a negative feedback loop–producing ever-more dirt, gravel and sand when only the hint of something precious would make the effort continue–then I would call that person blocked.

I think a wider, cross-cultural account of this phenomenon would be worth studying, because I have the sense that it describes something much broader than a condition of artists and self-described “creative” types. The “many people are too distracted” argument gets a lot of attention; the condition of being blocked is really just a description of distraction from the other side.

See also Working while blocked

Tags thinking writing creativity art distraction

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Clouds with depth

“Watching the clouds” is an everyday shorthand for daydreaming, aimlessness and boredom. It’s as if the professionals who classify clouds have this prejudice in mind as they go about their work, and they defend themselves by building a maze of systematic classification on top of the clouds. Just look at the remarkably thorough, carefully designed website of the International Cloud Atlas. It has to be one of the best online references I’ve ever seen, on any subject–as intellectually satisfying as the casual viewing of clouds is for the senses and the imagination.

We’ve had a lot of storms and weather in the last few weeks here in Chicago, and I’ve had more reason than normal to look at the sky. For ordinary observers, it seems to me that there is really just one fundamental division in cloud typologies: between clouds that create depth in the sky, and clouds that obscure. The atmosphere is an amazing medium. At its clearest one can see indefinitely far: to the stars, into thousands of light years, distances so large they have no referent on earth. It can also close off vision, down to the few feet reachable with one’s hands, or less.

Even in a busy city sky, when I look up, I rarely see anything. But an open sky is not empty space. A view into the sky can be much more than a line of sight between “here,” the standpoint of the observer, and “there,” the furthest visible point. An opening in the sky is an invitation to see strata: layers, a space with undefined depth, like how any unit of time can become long or short according to events.

photo clearing stratus

This picture taken a few days ago looks west, after a storm; the darker stratus clouds are just moving away, to reveal a large cumulus, a tower with puffs whose true size is impossible to gauge by looking. It could be the site of a floating city, an unoccupied landmass, the extension of a continent. This is what is distinctive about the cumulus tower: its heft hints at the depth contained in the sky.

cumulus tower

Then, too, when the stratus clouds pull back, in the foreground, those almost-featureless specks are birds–I think they’re swifts. This sky is their playground, their home. It’s wide open to them, but they take only a sliver.

close-up of birds

Sources

International Cloud Atlas

Tags weather nature

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Psychological spring

In places where spring seems to be a long time coming, there is a particular melancholy that sets in when one realizes that the season is, at least for aesthetic purposes, over. After the first round of new growth–the plants that cheer everyone up with their hardy blooms when it feels too cold for vegetative life–when the weeds and the trees look leafed-out enough to pass for mid-summer, when there are a few hot days that make one lose–even for a minute–one’s reflexive gratitude for the warm weather–that’s the end of psychological spring.

There’s another part to that feeling for me. I have a few small garden plots, and I also mark the moment when the seedlings I’ve started lose their compact, orderly form–beginning to stretch this way and that out of their own principles.

What is it that’s charming about seedlings? When they first emerge, they are pretty much all well-behaved. Next they show one, two, three of their true leaves, and I imagine that they will look straight and compact like this forever, only bigger. Of course this is not right. Soon, they will become unruly, stretch out of their pots, enter into tangled warfare with their neighbors, and nag at me that if I don’t do something with them soon, they will die or be stunted and I will have wasted the season.

In the spring, gardening is a rational task. Plans, maps, calendars-plants are at least potentially faithful to the winter vision.

Reasonable lines and grids contain early-season seedlings

But at some point by around this time, in the transition to summer, I get a premonition of the chaos that is coming, that it is more powerful than me. There ought to be a word for this phenomenon, the moment when a rational order gives way to organic spontaneity. There are probably gardeners for whom the early period is the best part of the season, when they feel most confident and fulfilled by their avocation. Once the plants are in control, it’s all downhill.

Tags plant season gardening

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Tom Crewe on Turgenev

Tom Crewe has a delightful review of Turgenev’s body of work in the April 21st issue of the London Review of Books. Two highlights whose combination struck me:

In reading Turgenev in English we are not departing from historical precedent. The vast majority of his 19th-century readers, in company with his most distinguished European and American admirers (James, Flaubert, Zola, George Eliot, Howells, the authorities in Oxford who gave him an honorary doctorate in 1879), read him largely in French or English. His importance for Western literature is unavoidably a mediated one, and it is through translation that we see what made those readers praise him so highly.

And:

Turgenev’s greatest strength as a writer was his talent for detail, which had several different applications. One of his most distinctive habits is his use of similes drawn from the natural world (the result of much time spent outside, first as a child frightened of his mother and then as a devoted huntsman).

Among the examples Crewe gives is this complex metaphor from Turgenev’s novella First Love:

Indistinct streaks of lightning flickered incessantly in the sky; they did not so much flash as flutter and twitch like the wing of a dying bird.

It takes a gifted writer to manage the handoff between these two images. I, at least, find it convincing; in my mind the lightning and the bird’s wings work on something like the same underlying principle of motion.

And for a writer who has largely made his reputation through translation, it is a risky, high accomplishment to mark naturalistic detail with so much vitality that your translators have what they need to keep it alive.

Tags writing prose image russian

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